Chapter 5: Responsive Planning – Agile Productivity Unleashed, 2nd Edition


Why every upfront plan fails

Reality is every plan’s worst enemy. Plans represent a snapshot in time, an approximation of what might occur based on the information known at the time the plan was developed. At best, plans are reasonable estimates of required activities, resources, costs and time based on previous experience with similar work. At worst, they represent educated guesswork of what may be required in order to achieve the desired outcome.

Organizations develop business plans, project plans, financial plans, marketing plans – all designed to provide managers and executives with a sense of control over the future. The problem, of course, is that the corporate world is constantly in a state of change. People join and leave the organization, technology evolves, project funding gets cut and market demands shift. No upfront plan, no matter how well thought out, can predict everything that could possibly occur during the course of the plan’s execution. So, all plans face the same challenge: they start to become obsolete the moment they reach the printer.

If you have ever been tasked with creating (or reviewing) a detailed project plan, then you have firsthand knowledge of the challenges and pitfalls of upfront planning. Let’s consider, for example, that you are an events manager who is responsible for planning a launch event for your company’s new product line in three months’ time. You develop a project plan based on your past experience in organizing promotional events – this includes:

  • Assigning tasks to specific people on your team.
  • Estimating the duration of work required for each task (i.e. ‘write up the press release’ should take around six hours).
  • Identifying task dependencies (‘we must measure the room size before we order the red carpet’).
  • Organizing the tasks to fit within the predetermined deadline (‘the shareholders and the press have already been notified that the product launch will take place on August 25th’).

On paper, the work appears to be achievable within the specified timeframe. So, you present the plan to your executive, and the work is authorized to begin.

Week One: One member of the planning team calls in sick on the Wednesday; he will be out for the rest of the week. In addition, the Chief Financial Officer has just released a memo requesting urgent budget updates from each department by the end of the month. It will take at least two days for you to put these figures together.

Week Two: The task of acquiring promotional giveaways is proving to be more challenging than originally estimated. None of the usual suppliers has stock available, so the team will need time to find another supplier and get authorization from the finance department.

Week Three: The finance department advises that it will take two weeks to process the approval forms for the new supplier. Additionally, the only graphic designer on your team has been reassigned by your boss to urgently address a problem on another project.

Week Four: The event coordinator advises you that there are three more critical tasks that need to be done in order for the product launch to be successful. These tasks require two additional resources on a part-time basis at a cost of $8,000 against the event budget. Neither the tasks, nor the added costs for the resources, were included in the original plan. This additional work is expected to delay the launch by at least a week.

So, now the team is one month into a three-month project plan and, already, the original delivery timeframes are in jeopardy. As a project manager, you are faced with the dilemma of:

  • Admitting to your boss that the project is likely to miss the deadline (and risking the perception that you have failed to manage the work properly); or
  • Asking your team to put in extra hours and weekend days to do ‘whatever it takes’ to meet the deadline; or
  • Hiding the fact that the project is off-course with ‘creative’ status reports and behind-the-scenes negotiations for additional resources.

This is a classic ‘no win situation’ for everyone involved in the process. Selecting any of the above options will either make the project manager feel like a failure, put undue stress on the team, or provide executives with a false sense of security that the project is on track – and reaffirm the myth that upfront project planning works.

Now, consider that this project is one activity that your organization is currently undertaking and multiply it by the hundreds of things that people are working on. This is the perfect recipe for missed deadlines, burnt-out staff members and exponential budget blowouts across the organization. Amazingly, this is how most organizations currently operate.

This chapter offers an alternative approach to upfront planning that has had proven success in the information technology and manufacturing sectors over the past two decades. This approach is known as responsive planning in the Agile world, and it is positioned to revolutionize the corporate world.

Apply, Inspect, Adapt

Responsive planning aligns closely with the ‘Ready, Fire, Aim’ approach espoused by Thomas J. Peters in his classic business and management texts.33 At the heart of this approach is the premise that the only way to see if something works is to try it, review the results and adjust your ongoing activities based on what you have found from your review. In the Agile world, this approach is known as ‘Apply, Inspect, Adapt’ and it underpins everything that makes Agile approaches successful.

Responsive planning puts a structure around the ‘Ready, Fire, Aim’ approach, which is based on breaking down long-term objectives into shorter delivery cycles with tasks that are achievable within the shortened timeframes.34 Each delivery cycle (or iteration) is generally scheduled to take between two and four weeks. This provides organizations with the opportunity to receive valuable outcomes every month, instead of waiting until the end of a year-long initiative before any return on investment (ROI) is achieved. Just as importantly, it allows key decision makers to regularly review and adjust the work undertaken to meet the changing needs of the organization.

There are two key groups of participants in the responsive planning and delivery process:

  • Business owners: Anyone in the organization who has a business requirement – or who represents the interests of external stakeholders (e.g. customers, partners) with a business requirement.35
  • Delivery team members: Anyone in the organization who is tasked with undertaking the work required to fulfill that business requirement.

Combined, these two groups of participants are referred to as the Agile team. The Agile team, as a whole, is collectively responsible for ensuring the successful outcome of any work assigned to them.

In the responsive planning process, business owners communicate their key strategic objectives to the delivery team (focusing on ‘what’ needs to be achieved; not ‘how’ to do it) as part of an iteration planning session at the beginning of each iteration. The delivery team is then empowered to meet these strategic objectives through realistic and achievable activities that they control.

The fulfillment of strategic objectives by the delivery team is achieved through six core ACTION plan steps, as shown in Figure 1, overleaf.

Figure 1 ACTION plan steps

  • Actionable goals: business owners break down their strategic objectives into smaller actionable business goals and communicate these goals to the delivery team as part of the iteration planning session.
  • Communicating priorities: business owners identify their highest-priority business goals (i.e. those that require the most immediate action) in the iteration planning session.
  • Tell us what can be done: the delivery team advises the business owners in the iteration planning session on how much high-priority work they can reasonably deliver in that iteration.
  • Iterative work: the delivery team undertakes the agreed work for that iteration, ideally with the business owners available throughout the iteration to provide input and feedback.
  • Outcomes review: at the end of each iteration, the delivery team presents the outcomes of their work to the business owners in an outcomes review session.
  • Next iteration: based on the outcomes of that iteration (and ongoing review and adjustment of the business priorities), the business owners identify their highest-priority business goals for the next iteration.

In addition to regularly delivering business value to the organization, responsive planning provides a number of ancillary benefits, including:

  • Business owners are able to review and respond to tangible outputs on a regular basis.
  • Risks and hurdles are able to be identified (and mitigated) earlier in the delivery process.
  • Delivery team members work with imminent deadlines (‘next week’ versus ‘next quarter’), creating a greater sense of urgency to complete the required work.
  • Delivery team members get greater satisfaction in seeing their efforts produce genuine business value for the organization.
  • Most importantly, business owners have the opportunity to adjust the priorities, activities and deliverables of the team in near real time, to achieve greater ongoing business value for the organization.

This last point cannot be emphasized enough. Responsive planning is not just breaking down a big upfront plan into smaller delivery cycles to receive more frequent feedback. It is evolving the plan as you progress, based on that feedback, and regularly reviewing and adjusting the plan to reflect the most current information available.

With only a few weeks to complete required work, resources are encouraged to take action instead of over-planning. They become more focused on deliverables than status reports. They see the results of their efforts more quickly and are encouraged to continue producing valuable outcomes. They are truly positioned to respond to the changing needs of the organization.

Defining (and refining) your goals

The ACTION plan model identifies the achievement of key strategic objectives through Actionable goals and Communicating priorities. Business owners drive the responsive planning process by establishing the overarching strategic objectives that the delivery team is expected to attain (e.g. provide a better service to our customers) and turning these objectives into achievable tactical goals (e.g. increase our customer service hours of operation, establish customer surveys to gather feedback, do market research to identify the needs of current and prospective customers). These achievable goals represent what the business owners believe are the most effective (and cost-efficient) ways to meet the stated objective. The first step of the ACTION plan (Actionable goals) is for business owners to convey these to the delivery team in the iteration planning session, respond to any questions, and ensure that everyone in the room understands each goal.

The next step of the ACTION plan (Communicating priorities) provides the opportunity for business owners to order the actionable goals by priority, focusing the team on those goals that can deliver the highest business value to the organization. (see Chapter 6: Business Value-Driven Work for further detail on assessing and prioritizing business value.) The highest business value goals identified by the business owners then represent the most critical items for the delivery team to tackle in the upcoming iteration. This not only enables all of the delivery team’s efforts to be focused on the work that will produce the greatest return for the organization; it also provides a ‘sanity check’ on whether the goals that were initially thought to deliver the greatest cost-benefit return actually will.

In the above example, one of the stated goals for providing a better service to our customers was to increase the customer service hours of operation. Let’s say that, in the iteration planning session, the business owners identified this goal as the highest priority for the upcoming iteration: the delivery team is then tasked with undertaking the work involved in delivering this outcome (or a reasonable subset of work towards the outcome) by the end of the iteration.

Four weeks later, the business owners and delivery team reconvene to review the outcomes of the team’s work towards increasing the customer service hours of operation. The delivery team presents the following in the outcomes review session:

  • The customer service hours have been extended to be from 8am to 6pm on weekdays. This has incurred additional salary costs of $22,000 per annum and has required two customer service representatives to shift their hours to accommodate the overflow work. However, all of this has been able to be achieved within normal work hours (i.e. without incurring overtime costs).
  • Investigation by the delivery team has found that increasing the customer service hours beyond this timeframe would incur significant additional costs to the organization, including:
    • overtime payments for four customer service representatives and two supervisors ($56,000 per annum)
    • ‘on-call’ charges for the information technology team to be available out-of-hours if the customer service systems fail ($25,200 per annum)
    • additional costs for building security and air-conditioning while staff is on-site ($48,000 per annum)

The business owners now have realistic information in hand to determine the priority goals for the team’s next iteration. They may decide that the cost of extending the customer service hours beyond 8am to 6pm is worth the competitive advantage that having greater levels of support will bring to the organization. Alternatively, they may decide that the currently extended hours are sufficient and focus the team’s energies for the next iteration on establishing the customer feedback survey. Or they may ask the team to investigate alternative approaches to after-hours customer service support, such as having staff work remotely to eliminate the building security and air-conditioning costs.

Whichever option is selected, the responsive planning approach has provided the business owners with tangible outcomes and realistic information on which to base their next steps. The delivery team has not incurred significant costs (or spent substantial amounts of time) to provide this feedback to the business owners, and the organization has had the opportunity to review and refine their tactics without sacrificing the original strategic objective.

Empowering the delivery team

The customer service example in the previous section focused on how an organization can position high-priority work to be done, and how the outcomes of this work can progressively refine the ongoing activities of the organization. The critical piece that was not addressed in this example was how the delivery team identified the work that would be required to achieve the stated goal – and how they kept themselves on track to deliver valuable outcomes at the end of the iteration.

One of the most critical elements of the ACTION plan is the Tell us what can be done step. It is the point in the responsive planning process where the delivery team translates the highest-priority actionable goals into the specific activities that will be required to achieve these goals. The thing that truly differentiates ACTION planning from standard ‘top-down’ management approaches, is that the business owners defer to the multi-skilled delivery team to advise them on the work required, the estimated time for each task, and what can realistically be achieved in the iteration given their current workload and other commitments. The business owners determine what high-priority goals the organization needs to meet; the delivery team determines what high-priority work they are in a position to deliver.

The delivery team identifies the work, they set the bar for how much work can be done, and, because of their direct involvement in the decision-making process, they become personally responsible for the outcomes. (see Chapter 10: Management by Self-motivation for further detail on the benefits of empowering the delivery team.)

Any work that the delivery team cannot achieve in the upcoming iteration is retained in a requirements backlog (as described in Chapter 12: Immediate Status Tracking). The requirements backlog becomes a living document where ongoing and evolving business requirements are recorded – and prioritized – in preparation for subsequent iteration planning sessions. It ensures that critical goals and activities are never more than one iteration away from business owner review and reconsideration.

In order for the Tell us what can be done step to be effective, the delivery team must represent a sufficiently broad range of areas across the organization to realistically determine the work required. In the providing a better service to our customers example, having only customer service team members in the delivery team may not provide sufficient input regarding the impact of proposed initiatives on employees (human resources), computer systems (information technology) or building administration (facilities). The broader the delivery team, the more likely that impacts and risks will be identified early – and the more realistic the proposed actions will be.

It is also beneficial, where possible, to include delivery team members who have addressed similar issues in the past, as they can bring both their experience on what work needs to be done and more realistic estimates on how long it will take to do each task.

Once the work to be undertaken for the iteration has been determined by the delivery team, they are now responsible for making it happen. This is the Iterative work step of the ACTION plan. Although the actual work that is required will inevitably vary depending on the goals and the skills of the team, the Agile world provides a number of tracking tools to assist the team members in managing both their individual workload and the remaining work for that iteration (no matter what the work itself entails). These tools are described in Chapter 12: Immediate Status Tracking and templates are provided in Section 4: Making Agile Work in Your Organization for you and your team to use in your responsive planning work.

The critical decision points

The value of an iteration is measured by its outputs. Therefore, at the end of each iteration, the business owners and the delivery team come together to review the work that has been accomplished, the issues that have been encountered, and to determine the next steps for the organization to pursue. These are the final two steps of the ACTION plan: the Outcomes review and the Next iteration.

This is an opportunity for the delivery team to ‘show off’ what they have accomplished and get real-time feedback directly from the people in the organization who will benefit the most from their work. It is an opportunity for the business owners to see (and respond to) tangible outputs, give meaningful feedback to the delivery team, and use this input to confidently progress work in the organization. It is an opportunity for the organization to immediately leverage the outputs of the iteration work, instead of waiting until the end of a two-year project to gain business value. Most importantly, it is an opportunity for the original goals (and even the strategic objectives) to be reviewed, refined and adapted to meet the changing needs of the organization.

The outcomes review session at the end of each iteration is both the inspect and the adapt elements of the ‘Apply, Inspect, Adapt’ approach; it is the aim in the ‘Ready, Fire, Aim’ strategy. It is both the culmination of the work undertaken to date and the launching pad for future work. It brings together everything that makes Agile approaches so effective, and is, arguably, the most satisfying part of the responsive planning process.

Techniques for conducting effective iteration planning and outcomes review sessions are provided in Chapter 7: Hands-on Business Outputs and Chapter 8: Real-time Customer Feedback. Methods for assessing outputs and planning future work are provided in Chapter 6: Business-value-driven Work and Chapter 16: Continuous Improvement.

Paving the pathway

Effective iteration planning, iterative work activities and outcome review sessions are critical to the success of Agile approaches. If the business requirements are not communicated effectively in the iteration planning session (e.g. too much or too little detail) – or if the delivery team feels pressured by the business owners to take on more work than they can handle in the forthcoming iteration – then the Agile team is not ideally positioned to deliver high business-value outcomes to the organization. Equally damaging is the potential for the delivery team to face issues in the Iterative work step that stop their work from progressing (e.g. a lack of needed equipment, a non-responsive stakeholder). Iterations are such relatively short timeframes that even a slight delay or hurdle can significantly impact the delivery team’s ability to achieve the agreed objectives in the remaining time.

This is why most of the steps in the ACTION plan are guided by a specially trained member of the Agile team known as an Agile facilitator. (In the Scrum method, the Agile facilitator is referred to as the ScrumMaster. It is such a crucial role to the success of Scrum that there are extensive courses in the IT industry solely dedicated to training and certifying ScrumMasters.)

The role of the Agile facilitator is to guide the Agile process:

  • To ensure that communication between business users and delivery team members is clear.
  • To confirm that Agile approaches are being followed most effectively.
  • To take ownership of addressing any hurdles that the Agile team encounters throughout the process.

Further information about the critical role of the Agile facilitator is provided throughout this section, most notably in their guidance of iterative work (Chapter 11: ‘Just-in-time ’ Communication) and their removal of impediments in the Agile process (Chapter 13: Waste Management).

When to walk away

In the customer service ACTION planning example above, the iteration review session offered three options that the business owners could choose to undertake in the next iteration:

  1. Extend the customer service hours beyond 8am to 6pm, for the competitive advantage that having greater levels of support will bring to the organization.
  2. Keep the currently extended hours and focus the team’s energies on establishing the customer feedback survey.
  3. Ask the team to investigate alternative approaches to after-hours customer service support.

The one option that was not presented in this example was the option for the business owners to choose to do nothing in the next iteration. This is another critical differentiator in the responsive planning approach; there are times when doing nothing is actually more beneficial for the organization than taking action.

For this example, the hands-on review of the outputs from the iteration may result in the business owners deciding that:

  • Sufficient work has been undertaken to meet the strategic objective and the delivery team resources would provide better value to the organization if they focused on other high-priority work.
  • The original actionable goals are too risky, too costly or too time-consuming to pursue any further. In this case, the business owners may choose to put the work on hold to provide them with time to consider alternative options (or to speak with a senior executive to reconsider the original strategic objective).
  • There is too little information available at the time to make an informed decision on the best way to move forward. The business owners may ask the team to pursue further investigation in the next iteration, or they may endeavor to take investigative action themselves, independently of the delivery team.

In all of these circumstances, the business owners have made the strategic decision that no further iterations are required, allowing the delivery team members to be allocated to other teams, or assigned to other work within the organization.

Ending a responsive planning process (even if it has not yet achieved its intended objectives) is, in reality, an extremely positive outcome for the organization. Either the process has ended because it has achieved its objectives, or it has been ended well before significant budget funds, time or resources were expended. Initiatives with huge budgets and long-term delivery timeframes often do not get stopped midway unless something catastrophic occurs. Moreover, if they are stopped midway, the work that they have undertaken up to that point is often valueless to the organization. In the Agile world, the team is tasked to deliver regular incremental value for the organization. So, no matter when (or why) the responsive planning process is completed, the organization is always in a position to leverage the value of the outcomes that have been delivered to date.

Publicizing your success

The interesting thing about Agile approaches is that they often generate so much short-term business value that participants forget to promote their successes within the organization. (This may be because incremental business value across 12 monthly iterations does not seem to have the same dramatic impact as the end of a year-long project.)

So, it is often up to the business owners and the delivery team to self-promote: announce outcomes to staff at the end of each iteration; update executives on how effective the Agile process is within your area; encourage other areas of the organization to try it. If needed, you can even put together the outcomes of several iterations into a product or service ‘launch’ – notwithstanding the fact that the product or service is likely to have been actively in use by the business for several months prior to the actual launch.

Agile processes have historically had a slow emergence in traditional organizations. Because they present a decidedly different way of working, much of the adoption of Agile approaches has been due to participants publicizing the exceptional results that they experienced – and encouraging other areas of the organization to trial it. In some cases, members of successful Agile teams have also strategically volunteered to work with other departments on their Agile projects, to enable them to benefit from their experience.

Agile approaches may seem like a radical shift for some organizations, but they have also been proven to produce radically improved outcomes for those organizations that have applied them – which is exactly why the effectiveness of Agile approaches needs to be promoted by those who have benefited from their success.


33 In search of excellence: lessons from America’s best-run companies, Peters TJ, Harper & Row (1982) ISBN 978-0060451530.

34 Responsive planning, like many of the Agile principles in the book, is derived from the Scrum method, with adaptations applied to make it more aligned to the needs of the corporate world.

35 External stakeholders can directly represent their own interests as business owners, however, this generally requires a strong existing working relationship (e.g. a long-term customer) and logistical planning to coordinate their availability to provide input and attend meetings throughout the iterative process.